Leveraging Identities: Building Loyalty | News from CoB | SIU

Southern Illinois University



Leveraging Identities: Building Loyalty

July 25, 2012, Christi Mathis, University Communications

Jane is a mom, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a nurse, an avid runner and enjoys creating scrapbooks and reading.  John, a student, also is a vegetarian, a son, an environmental activist and a guy who loves riding motorcycles, boating and hiking.

The fictional Janet and John, like all of us, have multiple identities.  We don’t just fulfill one role but rather, we are a composite of the many roles in our lives.  Now, research by SIU Carbondale faculty member Cheryl Burke Jarvis and colleagues reveals that companies can cater to many of those identities in order to build strong relationships with people.

Jarvis, along with Paul W. Fombelle from Northeastern University and James Ward and Lonnie Ostrom from Arizona State University, studied the concept of identity synergy and how, if an organization can help you fulfill multiple identity roles, it affects your loyalty to that organization.  Typically, loyalty manifests itself as customers purchase products to a company as well as through resistance to advertising campaigns from competitors.

The Journal of Academy of Marketing Science posted online the research paper by Jarvis and colleagues, “Leveraging customers’ multiple identities:  identity synergy as a driver of organizational identification.”  The journal plans to include the paper in its July print edition. Jarvis said this a premier marketing journal, within the top five in the field and the second largest marketing strategy journal.

Jarvis, an associate professor of marketing in the College of Business, said research has long indicated the importance of having people identify with organizations because that strong connection typically correlates into loyalty in the form of support or purchases from an organization.  But, there has long been a belief among marketing experts and psychologists that the various roles and identities people embody actually pull them in different directions, resulting in stress.

However, this new research is the first to demonstrate that marketers can leverage customer’s multiple societal roles to build and reinforce the relationship between the customer and the company, Jarvis said. 

“Our research shows that if an organization can help you fulfill a number of your most valued roles, you identify more strongly with and are more loyal to that organization.  For the organization, that typically means you are loyal to them, their product or their service,” said Jarvis.

Some 2,800 surveys completed by patrons of the Phoenix Zoo, coupled with patron interviews, served as the basis for the study.  The researchers asked patrons about their various roles and how they juggle their responsibilities and identities.  The poll also queried respondents about what evokes positive feelings and loyalty toward the zoo.

Patrons identified themselves as environmentalists, parents, community supporters, friends of animals and more. Jarvis said a substantial number even cited a religious connection, saying they feel close to God and nature when they visit the zoo.  By determining what roles people fill and finding ways to cater to and integrate a number of those roles, the zoo, and other entities as well, can encourage people to feel a strong connection to them, Jarvis said.

Likewise, encouraging peer identification is also beneficial, the research found.  If the zoo creates more opportunities for customers to interact with others who share their roles, it cements a positive connection to not only one another but also to the zoo. 

This explains why things like car or motorcycle organizations are so popular, she said.  Through magazines, special events, online forums and more, manufacturers connect people with similar interests.  Likewise, businesses cater to multiple roles in various ways, such as allowing pet owners to bring their animals to say, a hardware store, thus feeding their identities as pet lovers, homeowners and do-it-yourselfers.  Another example is a popular furniture store that offers a snack bar and provides a free play area for children.  The more of these connections that exist and the stronger they are for each customer within his or her various life roles, the more loyal the customer is, Jarvis said research shows. 

“The more customers identify with a company, the more they feel they are a part of the company and relate to it, the more loyal they tend to be and that is a positive outcome for the company.  Our research indicates that by finding ways to bond with people in their various roles, companies can alleviate role stress in their customers, build confidence and actually help customers integrate the multiple identities while inspiring loyalty,” Jarvis said. 

For businesses and companies, the implication is obvious.  Find out about your customers and provide them with opportunities to live their various roles through their connection with the company in order to help them fulfill the obligations of their multiple identities and to create a bond that benefits the company as well. 

From the customer standpoint, Jarvis said the research encourages people to look for companies that are finding ways to help them fulfill their various roles, even simultaneously, as this reduces role conflict tension. 

“If an organization can help you fulfill your important identities, it reduces stress and builds your self-confidence,” Jarvis said. 

Jarvis has conducted extensive research in the area of identity theory and plans additional work, involving students and faculty at SIU Carbondale and other institutions of higher learning.  While too early to discuss in detail, one new project involves investigating the role of customer identification with a firm in terms of service failure and recovery and how consumption decisions help customers build their social identity.